Chapter 10: A New Life
The deepest, most powerfully-sounding horn to ever disgrace the Dawn bellowed its tune across the entire valley, peeling back the very grass with its auditory force. What followed was a horrible menagerie comprised entirely of a harsh, brutish tongue, reverberating off the bordering crags until it reached Thaltuun—the massive, thoroughly armed wall which overlooked Elinwynn’s southern border. The gravely shouts organized into a series of horrible chants, joined shortly thereafter by the howling of what must have been thousands of wolves and the clamoring of heavy armor. Thaltuun’s very foundations shook with fear as the massive Bokanite army peered from beyond the horizon.
From the outset, one could see the vicious maws of the giants’ mounts snarling ferociously and dripping with foamed saliva; behind these marched several hundred giants wearing naught but loincloths, yet all were bathed head-to-toe in bright war-paint the color of the Deep; a much smaller group bore massive war-drums on their chests, beating them to the tune of the army’s terrible chants; finally came the Berserkers, giants among giants clad in the heavy, bear-themed armor which was their pride. These armored titans bordered Berylian’s own massive war-bear as the Chief sauntered through the valley with death in his eyes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the valley, Carleon looked on with a peculiar mix of terror and contempt. The Commander, encased in crimson-tinged armor, and with his black-trimmed cloak draped over his shoulders, raised his right hand over his head in stiff fashion. His brow was drenched with sweat, yet he retained as stoic an expression as was possible, given the circumstances. He glanced to his left, then his right hurriedly; positioned along Thaltuun’s stone girth were several catapults, each manned by teams of the gambeson-clad Fangs of the Crimson Serpent.
The Chief wasted no time in pumping his massive double-sided axe in the air, the entirety of his forces responding in kind. He then raised his voice in a powerful roar, followed by his pointing the tip of his axe towards Thaltuun’s gargantuan form. The wolf-mounted Bokanites parted the way immediately, releasing a torrent of their near-naked kin headlong into the valley. The giants thundered with pounding footsteps, shaking the mountain range anew, and stiffening the backs of every Elinwynian soldier atop the wall.
The Fangs immediately set their projectiles ablaze, and threw the switches of their catapults all at once. The giants roared defiantly as the Fangs’ fiery assault rained down upon them, lighting up the twilight sky like a deluge of falling stars. First one, then another, then dozens upon dozens more howled in agony as the flaming boulders smashed into them with bone-crushing force. Soon, all that could be heard was the cacophony of hundreds of boulders smashing into pieces; all that could be seen was gravel and debris whipped into a cloud in all the chaos. Carleon raised his closed fist in the air; the bombardment finished with one last destructive volley, rendering the valley before Thaltuun a charred, ruined wasteland.
No signs of movement disturbed the dust cloud, nor any sounds besides muffled groans and wails akin to those of a wounded jugal—certainly nothing resembling the horrid chants from before. When the dust finally cleared, all that was visible was the valley’s scorched basin. No giants rushed through the mountains, nor even stood upright any longer. Rather, the valley was full to bursting with giant corpses; bloodied, charred, and buried in rubble from the onslaught. Carleon and his men let out a collective sigh of relief. However, the mound of what were previously thought to be corpses stirred violently as, one-by-one the giants arose to their feet—beaten and bloodied, but undoubtedly alive. They all roared in what might have been agony, but was more than likely pure, unadulterated fury.
In a panic, the Commander flailed his arm outward, prompting the archers below to let fly their volleys of arrows—to no avail. The same thick flesh which shielded the giants from the catapults rendered the arrows all but useless. Whatever confidence had surged within Elinwynn’s first line of defense quickly fizzled into nothing as the mass of bloodied Bokanites advanced with more ferocity than ever before, blood-earnest in their siege of Thaltuun.
The nameless Ghoul brought down his hammer on a sword-shaped sheet of metal in a monotonous cycle. His face bore neither good nor ill will as he went about his craft in silence. He stirred from hammering only when the metal cooled, making it less malleable. That is when he held it aloft, prompting Ephraim—who’s fledgling stubs had grown into two handsome antlers—to heat it with a scorching puff from his lungs. No words were exchanged; each went back to his own work in tranquil silence.
While No-Name was undoubtedly crafting a greatsword, Ephraim was busy with a much, much smaller piece of metal that would probably end up as a dagger. He kept the metal at a constant temperature with the heat of his breath, though he still could only hammer the metal softly; otherwise it would rattle too much, or even fall off his makeshift anvil in a molten mess! No matter. If there was anything Ephraim had in droves, it was time.
Speaking of which, it was time for his elixir; a fact heralded by that odd mixture of hunger and thirst which came every two days or so. Ephraim was still thankful that he’d finally figured out a way to measure the days down here, though it had taken him some time. Counting the seconds was a task both arduous and irritating at first, but Ephraim had gotten used to it after the first few days. Now it was like second nature, allowing him to get into a sort of routine.
Ephraim plunged his half-finished dagger in the earthen trough of water at his right, then arose to place it on a cooling rack. On his way out, he snapped his fingers towards the furnace, sending a spark to breathe life back into the dying coals. He and No-Name still did not exchange a single word, yet it was evident that whatever enmity may have existed between them was long gone.
The Hub bustled—if it could even be called that—with the modest traffic of the miners and the occasional wanderers moving through the tunnels.
‘Perfect,’ Ephraim thought. He’d used to do what everyone else did, which was waiting to get their elixir until hunger nearly incapacitated them. This meant that there was always a series of long lines by the time he arrived, which only made the hunger worse. Once he’d gotten used to the patterns, it was only natural for Ephraim to work an early meal into his routine.
Ephraim walked briskly until he came to the Brew-masters’ Cavern, marked by the series of earthen cauldrons arranged neatly all across its base. Ephraim scanned the room as he always did, smiling when he saw a familiar, and very cheerful face looking back at him.
“Greetings Ephraim,” giggled Millicent’s jovial voice.
“To you as well, Millicent.”
“Why, yes. Punctuality, even in excess, is never a bad thing.”
Millicent was arrayed in her patchwork dress, which every day seemed more and more fitting—both for her childlike personality, and petite form. Ephraim snarled internally. He hated when his mind wandered, and his eyes drifted to Millicent’s more…arousing features. It made him feel excited in a manner that Ephraim could only describe as unclean. And that was just as well; Fath—the King—never taught him anything about women. Ephraim briefly wondered if it was this way for every man, then shoved the thought from the forefront of his mind, like he’d done since it first began.
Ephraim and Millicent chatted away until one of the brew-master’s bells signaled the completion of a new batch. They then walked beside one another in happy silence, Millicent in a playful skip, Ephraim with a serious gait. After the brew-master filled their flasks to the brim, the two continued conversing and bantering until Ephraim almost lost track of the seconds.
“Oh, I’m late,” he suddenly exclaimed. “I’ve got to get to the mines before Koz has my hide.”
“Later, then?” Millicent asked, pouting slightly.
“Of course.” With that, Ephraim was off, so quickly that he didn’t notice Millicent’s faux pout become a genuine frown, or that she had reached out to touch his shoulder—only to recoil once he turned away.
Ephraim hurriedly chugged the contents of his flask, only barely remembering to strap it to his side so he could grab a pickaxe on his trek through the mine.
“You’re late,” he heard Koz declare.
“Yes, yes I know. My apologies.”
“No harm done. You and I are the only ones here with a sense of time anyway.”
Both Koz and Ephraim set about swinging their pickaxes at the purple rock walls. Every chiseling motion freed up another clod of crystal, but nothing substantial. If this continued, the day’s haul would only be good for the brew-master’s pot, which in itself wasn’t so very bad. Still, as they held more of Alikkarn’s latent magical energy, the long, spear-like crystals were much more useful.
“This new tunnel has been nothing but difficult,” Ephraim mumbled, as he set down his pickaxe to lift a chunk of rock out of the way.
“Hmm…It’s bound to happen every once in a while. The Chasm wasn’t always hollow, you know.”
“Very true indeed.”
As Ephraim shifted the rubble at his feet, he could swear he felt something move. He paused briefly, a sudden chill prickling at his shoulders. Nothing more stirred.
‘Just my imagination,’ he decided. Right as he lifted his pickaxe for another strike, the earth tremored violently. Dust and chunks of rock fell from the tunnel’s ceiling, followed by the walls cracking as they shook with even greater frequency. Ephraim could barely think before the entire tunnel collapsed around him.
The earth grew still once more, having shifted its weight so suddenly that one could scarcely tell there had ever been a tunnel there. Ephraim coughed up the gravel that filled his lungs, and waved his hand to waft away the residual dust. Then it hit him.
“Koz!” he yelled. The bald Ghoul, who had ventured much further into the tunnel than Ephraim, was nowhere to be seen. Ephraim tore at the rubble frantically, calling out Koz’s name with more panic each time. Finally, he managed to see, then take hold of a limp, grey hand in all of the rubble. He pulled on it with all of his might; it came free of the rubble instantly, which should have been cause for celebration. Instead, it filled Ephraim with dread.
“By the Sun-God! Where’s the rest of you?”
A muffled voice called out through the rubble, though Ephraim did not know from where it came.
“What? Koz, is that you?” Ephraim shoved aside as much rubble as he could, his panic steadily growing.
“I said, calm down!” the voice rung out loudly from the rubble. Ephraim let out a deep breath, then wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Oh, thank Shinkitu. You had me worried sick.”
“Why? It’s not like I’m in any pain.”
“Fair enough. Now, where are you?”
“Judging by the position of your voice, I’d say to your left.”
Koz’s composure was stunningly contagious, and Ephraim managed to clear most of the rubble away rather quickly. He let out a relieved sigh when he saw Koz’s head; bent at a painful-looking angle, but gratefully still attached to his body.
“Hello there,” Ephraim chuckled.
“Millicent’s silliness is rubbing off on you, Ephraim. Just pull me out, will you?”
Along with his hand, one of Koz’s legs had been completely severed by the falling rocks. Ephraim winced.
“I’m sorry, Koz.”
“If only I’d noticed it sooner, maybe—”
“Cave-ins are only natural; it’s nothing to get worked up about.” Though true, Koz’s words did little to ease Ephraim’s guilt. The bald Ghoul smirked slyly. “Although, someone will have to go back to get my leg.”
“And I’m the silly one?” The two chuckled as they meandered through the rubble.
With great forbearance, and one well-placed kick, Ephraim and Koz managed to escape what remained of the tunnel mere minutes after its collapse. To their surprise, a small army of miners had gathered to assist them; it was they who’d removed so much of the rubble that Ephraim was able to push that final boulder, thus securing their way to freedom. Two of the miners took Koz up in their arms and were off immediately. Ephraim stayed behind to comb the rubble for Koz’s leg, though he did not understand why they needed it. It wasn’t like they could reattach it—could they? That would explain part of the reason Koz was so calm…
“Ephraim!” Millicent’s voice soared through the crowd of onlookers and first-responders alike, before she barreled through the masses herself. She immediately nuzzled into Ephraim’s chest, sighing with great relief.
“Oh, Millicent! I’m-I’m fine” Ephraim stuttered. The sudden closeness sent a wave of arousal through Ephraim’s head, making him dizzy. Millicent had always been affectionate with him, but this time it was different. Her touch had more weight behind it than before, and her voice possessed a shakiness that greatly concerned him.
“I was so worried, for both you and Koz…”
“W-We managed to pull through, somehow.” Many moments passed, yet still Millicent held Ephraim in a warm embrace. He could feel her trembling, even through their clothes.
“I’m glad,” she said, smiling warmly.
“You are a dear friend to me, Millicent. I’m sorry that I made you worry.” Ephraim could only return Millicent’s smile as best he could, and keep beating down those strange urges which kept spoiling things.
‘Yes, a friend’ he thought. ‘My first, and dearest.’
As Koz’s injuries had greatly incapacitated him, it fell to Ephraim to take charge of the mine. He was the only one Koz trusted to keep things running smoothly, and the rest of the miners seemed to feel the same. Under Ephraim’s meticulous watch, the mine was able to maintain its usual productivity—ensuring the denizens of Kalonnde were never without the all-important elixir.
Every day, Ephraim counted the seconds, which became minutes, which became hours until the work day was finished. He would then hang up his pickaxe and walk straight to the cavern which served as an infirmary—at least, the few times accidents such has Koz’s happened. Visiting Koz enabled him to carry on their biting banter, as well as bury what feelings of guilt lingered in his heart. Thus, daily trips to the infirmary became a crucial addition to Ephraim’s routine.
It was one such evening that he strolled into the cavern to find that Koz was not at his usual place; in fact, he was not in the infirmary at all.
“Excuse me,” he said to one of the attendant Ghouls. “Where did Koz go?”
“Hmm? Oh, he went for a walk. He should be back soon.”
“A walk? But his leg?” The attendant looked at Ephraim quizzically, before realization crept over her features.
“Forgive me, Ephraim,” she said, a slight chuckle on her lips. “I forget how new you still are to our ways. Severed limbs are as nothing, so long as we retrieve them.”
Just then, Koz strolled in from the cavern’s entrance, the usual dull expression on his face.
“Greetings Ephraim” he said, as though nothing were amiss. Ephraim immediately spun around and took hold of Koz’s arm. “Oh dear.”
“What is the meaning of this?”
“I might ask you the same. What exactly are you doing?”
Ephraim surveyed Koz’s arm wildly, spotting a scar where his hand was previously severed. He then squatted down to view Koz’s leg, finding the same sort of scar below his knee.
“Your hand! Your leg! They’re—”
“Reattached, yes. Is something wrong?”
“Yes! No…a little? Can you please explain to me how it is you’re back in one piece?”
“I have the elixir to thank for that. Along with its obvious use as sustenance, it also serves as a sort of medicine.” Koz gestured to the scar above his wrist and made a tracing motion around it. “A few drops here and there, some pressure, and a bit of time are all that’s needed.”
“Why wasn’t I told of this before?” Ephraim exclaimed.
“I don’t see what the issue is. Care to explain?”
A pang of envy turned Ephraim’s stomach. It seethed in his heart, like never before; and he hated it, even more than he hated the warmth and dizziness that came over him when Millicent was around. Here he was, for years having accepted the bitter truth that his arm was gone, never to be recovered. Yet here stood one who had lost both his hand and leg in an accident, and had them reattached!
“I…I need to be alone for awhile” Ephraim said, stalking away before he said something he’d regret. Koz opened his mouth, then shook his head in confused resignation.
It was a good thing he didn’t run into Millicent, for Ephraim had no idea what he would have done. Presently, he closed himself off in his private chamber, punching the wall.
‘It’s not fair,’ he thought. ‘How dare he—no, that’s not it! It isn’t Koz’s fault! I should be happy for him!’ Indeed, he should have. Instead, he was filled with an irrational rage. Just when he’d begun to love and accept his body the way it was, his heart swelled with an irrepressible longing for his missing limb.
“Ugh! WHY! Why can’t things just be simple!” Ephraim struck the wall with such force it cracked beneath his hardened fist. Burning tears ran down his cheeks, and he bit his bottom lip in agony. He’d never had these problems before, not when he was in Elinwynn. Then again, things were indeed simpler there. His greatest worry back then was whether he’d get a headache from a prudish stylist combing his hair too hard. Beyond that, his every move was ordered, imposed upon him from above. He didn’t need to think, and was strongly encouraged not to feel. No, all he needed was to obey.
None of that was true anymore. He had his own responsibilities to uphold; his own thoughts to think; his own decisions to make. What’s more, his heart was open, more so than it had ever been. And it hurt, far more than any bruises he’d sustained during training, or any blow he’d suffered during the Festival.
“Breathe…” Ephraim told himself. “Inhale, exhale…inhale, exhale…”
Ephraim sat down on his stone bed, able to finally think straight again.
‘The Ghouls can reattach their limbs…I’m a Ghoul.’ He pondered that a moment, staring into the flame of one of his candles. That was when it dawned upon him: if Ghouls were made, not born, then their bodies had to be constructed; limbs and other body parts had to be formed, then connected. If this was true, and if the Ghouls could reattach severed limbs with the elixir, who’s to say they couldn’t make and attach a new one to an existing body?
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Ephraim exclaimed.
“I mean just what I said, Ephraim. I’ve never even thought of it before!” said Koz. “Frankly, it just seems foolish.”
“Could you at least consider it before brushing it aside as folly? This…it means a lot to me, Koz!”
“Yes, yes, you made me aware of that the other day.” Koz’s voice was tinged with annoyance, and no small amount of anger. Ephraim could only stare at the ground, guilt turning his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” Ephraim mumbled. “I mean what I said; this means a lot to me, more than I ever thought it did.” Koz’s features softened, and he let out a deep sigh.
“I understand. I just wish you’d have talked to me before stomping off like that. If poor Millicent had a heart, it would’ve burst three times over.”
“I didn’t mean to—she was that worried? I had no idea…”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear.” His words were harsh, but Koz’s mouth curved into a sly grin. “Now then, about the matter of your arm.”
“Do you think it’s possible? Even if the odds are slim—”
“Like I said, I don’t know. Hmm…we should speak with the Elder, he has more knowledge on the subject than the entirety of Kalonnde put together.”
“Then what are we waiting for? You lead, I’ll follow.”
The Elder’s chamber was, thankfully vacant when Ephraim and Koz entered from an adjacent tunnel. Once called, all it took was the blink of an eye for him to arrive, which still sent a chill down Ephraim’s spine. The Elder listened intently as Koz relayed Ephraim’s inquiry in hushed tones, as if he didn’t want Ephraim or any other unwelcome ears to hear the conversation. After a long deliberation, both Koz and the Elder turned to Ephraim, the former with a concerned expression.
“Well?” Ephraim asked. “Is it possible?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Koz answered.
‘No, of course not,’ Ephraim complained to himself. ‘Lately, it never is.’
Koz opened his mouth to say something more, but was cut off by a wave of the Elder’s clawed hand.
“What you seek, though it bends a great many of the rules built into our Father’s magic, is entirely possible,” The Elder croaked. “But take heed: there is always great danger when departing from any well-trodden path, as well as a price to be paid.”
“What kind of price?”
“…It seems you will not be swayed with words,” the Elder said, with a sigh. He then leaned on his staff as if overcome by great weariness. “Very well. The dangers inherent to your chosen path are thus: every time a new Ghoul is made, a soul must be bound to the body. Once joined, any magic used to tear them asunder has the very real possibility of severing their connection, permanently.”
Ephraim pondered for a moment, then his eyes lit up with comprehension.
“You mean that, to attempt this, my soul will have to be un-bound, then re-bound to my body—this time with a new arm?”
“Precisely. If we succeed, your body will undergo a great change, and you will have to bear whatever that change entails. But if we fail, your soul will return irreparably damaged—if it returns at all.”
A torrent of emotions surged through Ephraim’s heart, derailing whatever rationality remained in his thoughts.
‘What if it doesn’t work?’
‘What if it does work, and it isn’t what I thought it’d be?’
‘What if those “changes” are too much to bear’?
‘Am I really ready to die for this, if it comes to that?’
‘How would Millicent feel about all of this?’
That last one made a dark shadow come over Ephraim’s features; he could already see the disappointment and sadness that would be in Millicent’s eyes, just at the thought that he’d even consider such a dangerous procedure. After all, she’d taught him to, first and foremost, love himself. How would it make her feel to find out that he’d risked his life just to appease some vain obsession? It would crush her ceaselessly joyful, and boundlessly beautiful heart…
It was with a great deal of thought, and no small amount of fear meshed with guilt that Ephraim uttered his next words.
“…When do we start?”